Johnson, Bolt Court, and Dickens

James Murray
Sir James Murray, chief editor of the OED

Well, gentle reader, yesterday’s transmission was interrupted due to a cooking injury, but today my sense of duty has combined with yesterday’s fascinating facts, so…. This day in London’s history: on 1 February 1884, the ‘A to Ant’ section of what we now know as The Oxford English Dictionary was published. It was originally called, appropriately wordily for a dictionary, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles; Founded Mainly on the Material Collected by The Philological Society and was not known as The Oxford English Dictionary until 1895.

The main driving forces behind the dictionary, work on which had begun much earlier, in 1857, were Herbert Coleridge, Frederick Furnivall, and Richard Trench. One of its most prolific early contributors was Dr WC Minor, a retired US army surgeon, who was, at the time, imprisoned in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire.

All of which is nothing really to do with London or its street names, except that Sir James Murray, who was chief editor of the OED from 1879 until his death in 1915, moved to London and taught at the Mill Hill School. Mill Hill’s name was first recorded as Myllehill in 1547 and, not surprisingly, appears to mean ‘hill with a windmill’.

Samuel Johnson

But for London dictionary connections, we need look no further than Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. Although not the first of its kind, it is considered one of the most influential works of its kind in the English language. And Johnson’s comment to his faithful fan and biographer, James Boswell, is among the most quoted lines about London:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

One of the many places where Johnson, who was born in Lichfield, lived in his time in London was Bolt Court. The court takes its name from the rebus of the Bolton family who owned a great deal of local property. Prior Bolton was one of those who did a great deal to restore the nearby church of St Bartholomew.

Pickwick ClubThe rebus is a device once commonly used to denote names by the pictorial representation of words and the Bolton rebus was a birdbolt (a short blunt arrow used to kill birds without piercing them) through a tun (a large barrel or fermenting vat). There is still an example of this rebus in the church.

The device also features in the sign for the Bolt in Tun, a famous inn off Fleet Street that gave its name to the now-extinct Bolt in Tun Yard. In the window of this inn Charles Dickens once saw a sign advertising the Bath and Bristol coach; the name of the proprietor was Moses Pickwick and Company.

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